Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) defended nuclear power Sunday despite reports of major trouble at damaged reactors in Japan, arguing that Americans shouldn’t rush to shun the energy source so quickly after these disasters. He’s right.
Some reports on television and online are displaying maps that depict the locations of America’s 104 reactors, implying that meltdowns might be possible in your back yard. Yet these maps really show that few of the plants are near dangerously active fault lines. Perhaps Californians have more to worry about, though the state isn’t threatened by the sort of fault Japan is. (California’s San Andreas is a less-dangerous transform fault, not a subduction zone, and the risk of tsunami is smaller.)
Nuclear, meanwhile, is a proven, zero-carbon energy source that provides reliable, uninterrupted power, unlike wind or solar. It also produces none of the other noxious particles and gases — such as mercury and sulfur dioxide — that traditional coal plants do, substances that harm Americans every day. So more nuclear is probably necessary to green America’s electricity generation. At the least, we should keep it firmly on the table.
Moderate environmentalists were finally coming around to this view, decades after the Three Mile Island scare. But the possible meltdowns in Japan might stigmatize nuclear power in America once again, just as innovative new reactor designs and a streamlined regulatory process were showing some promise of reestablishing nuclear in the United States.
The failing reactors in Japan, of course, are scary. But the problem in this case is not nuclear power per se. It’s nuclear reactors without adequate containment, next to a dangerous subduction zone, that face tsunami risk. The lesson is not to abandon nuclear. It’s to be cautious about reactor design, maintenance and siting — the sorts of things that should be components of American nuclear policy, anyway.